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Syrian defector calls for unity

Syria's most prominent defector has put himself forward as someone to unite the fractured opposition as the disparate factions were set to gather in Qatar to try to agree on a transitional leadership if Bashar Assad's regime is toppled.

Brig Gen Manaf Tlass, a commander in the powerful Republican Guard and the son of a former defence minister who was the most trusted lieutenant of the president's father, defected in early July and flew to Paris. He is now in Saudi Arabia, a key financial backer of the rebellion, where he told the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily that he does not see a future for Syria with his former friend at the helm.

"I will try and help as much as I can to unite all the honourable people inside and outside Syria to put together a roadmap to get us out of this crisis, whether there is a role for me or not," he said, explaining that he was in Saudi Arabia to assess what kind of assistance the oil-rich nation could give to help create a new Syria.

In the three weeks since his defection he has only spoken publicly twice, both times to Saudi-controlled media.

Tlass, once a close confidant of the president's, said the regime has many good people without blood on their hands and the country's institutions should be preserved.

He said he had tried to persuade the president not to listen to his inner circle of security advisers who were all counselling for a harsh crackdown on the uprising, which began as peaceful protests in March 2011 but morphed into a civil war.

He said he defected when he realised the regime could not be deterred from its single-minded pursuit of crushing the opposition. "Sometimes in a friendship you advise a friend many times, and then you discover that you aren't having any impact, so you decide to distance yourself," he said.

The meeting in Doha will focus on forming a transitional administration that could step in as a stopgap government if rebel forces topple Assad. It marks the most comprehensive bid to bring together various Syrian opposition groups and show world leaders a credible alternative to Assad.

It is not clear, however, if Tlass would be an acceptable leadership figure for the opposition or the rebels fighting - and dying - on the ground, especially considering how close his family has been to the regime.

One European Union official familiar with Western intelligence reports, however, dismissed Tlass as a "peripheral figure" in the regime, who had been sidelined. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the material.

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